1806: Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, age 35

Mr. Peabody Says:

Beethoven could not find someone to play his new concerto. The eventual first performance, with Beethoven performing, was a disaster. By this time his hearing was just about gone. The concert was a huge mess, and it bombed. And then it did not get played again for a long time and fell into obscurity.

Mendelssohn came to the rescue, again, championing the concerto and saving it for the world in 1836. Thank God for Mendelssohn!

Claudio Arrau/Sir Colin Davis, Staatskapelle Dresden

  1. Allegro moderato 20:51
  2. Andante con moto E minor 6:10
  3. Rondo (Vivace) 10:35

Total time: 37:36

Instruments:

  • solo piano
  • flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons
  • two horns, two trumpets
  • timpani
  • strings

This really is the 4th of the five piano concertos. Only the 1st and the 2nd are out of chronological order.

The 4th Concerto was heard first in private…

It was premiered in March 1807 at a private concert of the home of Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz.

With the Appassionata Sonata:

Beethoven apparently composed the Fourth Concerto and Appassionata Sonata about the same time, so the emotional contrast of these two monumental compositions is amazing. What this means is that he could work on something most serene and transparent at the same time as something else that was very angry and loud. But he may have alternated, according to his mood.

From inspiration to completion:

It is very difficult to pin down exactly how Beethoven composed anything, because his creative process was complicated. Historical records make clear when his works were premiered and published. However, we know little about exactly when he started projects, or how many rests he took before resuming them for completion.

We do know that Beethoven’s initial ideas often had little to do with what those ideas developed into. There is perhaps not composer whose music seemed more spontaneous, as if it just sprang to life fully formed and polished. Perhaps for this reason it is wise to remember that when we experience a finished musical creation, we have no idea how many steps lead to the completion. We only know what the finished work sounds like, not how it evolved.

There was no one to play it:

After completing this concerto in 1806, the composer could not find anyone to perform it, so it was never heard until its public premiere on December 22nd, 1808, and the performance, with Beethoven performing, was a disaster.

The concert was a huge mess:

In Beethoven’s time it was not unusual to introduce several works at once, and the 4th Concerto was part of an insanely long concert, about four hours in length, that took place unheated hall in the dead of winter. The new concerto was sandwiched between, among other things, two new symphonies. He premiered by the 5th and 6th Symphonies on the same night plus his Choral Fantasy, which would later evolve into part of his 9th Symphony. This hardly gave anyone a chance to really enjoy his new concerto. And everything was under-rehearsed.

It bombed:

The new piano concerto basically laid an egg, and it also marked the last time Beethoven appeared as a soloist with an orchestra in public. It is likely that at this time his deafness had seriously interfered with his ability both to play well and conduct.

How bad was it?

Those of you who are old enough to remember Johnny Carson and the Tonight Show, because what followed this line was always a list of jokes. But what follows, as funny as it is, is not comedy writing. It happened. You can’t make this stuff up.

Beethoven cold-cocked a kid in the chorus:

Yes, it happened, if this story is true, and I almost hope it happened, because it is more like Monty Python than history. Beethoven did not intend to hit a kid, he was just carried away and clumsy, but this is really hilarious. The composer Louis Spohr recounted an anecdote told to him by Ignaz Xaver Seyfried, music director at that venue at that time.

“Beethoven was playing a new Pianoforte-Concerto of his, but forgot at the first tutti that he was a solo player, and springing up, began to direct in his usual way. At the first sforzando he threw out his arms so wide asunder, that he knocked both the lights off the piano upon the ground. The audience laughed, and Beethoven was so incensed that he made the orchestra cease playing, and begin anew. Fearing a repetition of the accident, two boys of the chorus placed themselves on either side of Beethoven, holding the lights. One of the boys innocently approached nearer, and when the fatal sforzando came, he received from Beethoven’s right hand a blow on the mouth, and the poor boy let fall the light in terror… If the public were unable to restrain their laughter before, they could now much less, and broke out into a regular bacchanalian roar. Beethoven got into such a rage that at the first chords of the solo, he broke a dozen strings.”

And then it did not get played again for a long time:

No one else played it until at least almost a decade after Beethoven’s death. So one of the world’s most loved concertos, by possibly the most loved composer, almost got lost to the rest of us, although since it was published it is likely that someone would have eventually discovered what a miracle this music is.

Mendelssohn to the rescue, again:

Felix Mendelssohn championed Beethoven’s concerto in concert halls all across Europe, and Mendelssohn also was largely responsible for a rebirth of interest in Bach’s music. So besides being a prodigy, a genius and in general a fine human being, he also never stopped promoting the music of other geniuses.

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